"Working for the man". Does "Working" act as a noun, verb or something else in this case and why?

If I said, "I am working for the man." Then clearly working is a verb. However, I'm confused by the colloquial phrase "working for the man." It seems to have a "poetic" tone if you will. Because the subject does not exist I wonder if "Working" is a state of being in this case?

As "Peter Shor" pointed out Maybe the answer is that because this is not a complete sentence then we don't know what role "working" plays in the sentence.

FWIW, I'm imaginging how I can translate the phrase into Japanese. Which word I use for "Working" depends on whether it is a noun or a verb.

  • It seems very clear that working in this case is a verb (especially with the -ing suffix). Could you expand on why you think it could be used as a noun in that phrase?
    – IQAndreas
    Dec 23, 2013 at 16:39
  • Do you mean the meaning would double as something like "It works (functions) for the man"?
    – IQAndreas
    Dec 23, 2013 at 16:50
  • @IQAndreas - I added a bit more detail. Dec 23, 2013 at 16:52
  • 2
    "Working for the man" is not a sentence. Give us a sentence, and we'll tell you whether "working" is a noun or a verb. Dec 23, 2013 at 16:53
  • Or 'we' might just say 'indeterminate – see Quirk's umpteen point gradience'. Dec 23, 2013 at 17:26

2 Answers 2


Are you perhaps thinking of the song ‘Proud Mary’?

Left a good job in the city,

Working for The Man every night and day,

And I never lost one minute of sleeping,

Worrying 'bout the way things might have been.

If so, working is an ellipted form of I was working, and is thus the -ing form of the verb work.

It’s rather different in a clause such as Working for the man was hard. There its role is ambiguous, but I think a good case can be made for it being a noun, since it is the subject of the clause.

  • In the phrase given, it's impossible to tell whether it's a gerund or a noun; they are not always easily distinguished, which is why they get confused. The point is that it doesn't make any difference in this sentence, since either one will work; and also that labelling a word with a part of speech tells one precisely zero about the grammar. Dec 23, 2013 at 22:09

SUPPLEMENTARY to Barrie England's answer
As Barrie says, syntactically working may act as a noun or as an adjective or as a component of the progressive construction.

But the entire phrase working for the man means a bit more than this, as is suggested by Barrie's citation of John Fogerty's “Proud Mary”. Note particularly the capitalization: The Man.

Where I come from, the US South, The Man is not any particular man—he is Authority, and not benevolent Authority either. In a particular situation The Man may be your employer, he may be the overseer of your work gang, he may be the principal of your high school, he may be the owner of the land you farm as a sharecropper, he may be the sheriff of your county, and in all these capacities he has a personal name and a title; but as The Man he’s just the guy who exercises the power of the community over you, and employs it to make his life easy and your life miserable.

Unless you are yourself The Man, your lot is to spend your life Workin for the Man.

I suspect that the term arose among African-Americans, who suffered most terribly under The Man’s oppressions; but it was already current among whites, too, when I was a teenager. In 1962 Roy Orbison wrote a song that translates the old worksong style into a C&W idiom:

"Working For The Man"

Hey now you better listen to me everyone of you
We got a lotta lotta lotta lotta work to do
Forget about your woman and that water can
Today we’re working for the man

Well pick up your feet
We’ve got a deadline to meet
I’m gonna see you make it on time
Don’t relax
I want elbows and backs
I wanna see everybody from behind

’Cause you’re working for the man working for the man
You gotta make him a hand when you're working for the man

Oh well I’m pickin’ ’em up and I’m laying ’em down
I believe he’s gonna work me into the ground
I pull to the left I heave to the right
I wanna kill him but it wouldn't be right

’Cause I’m working for the man working for the man
gotta make him a hand when you’re working for the man

Well the boss man’s daughter sneaks me water
everytime her daddy’s down the line
she says meet me tonight love a me right
and everything is gonna be fine
So I slave all day without much pay
’cause I’m just abiding my time
’cause the company and the daughter you see
They’re both gonna be all mine

Yah I’m gonna be the man gonna be the man
Gotta make him a hand if I'm gonna be the man

working for the man working for the man
gonna be the man gonna be the man
Gotta make him a hand working for the man

In the last generation or so the term has migrated out of the rural proletariat into the higher reaches of salary-slavery. There Working for The Man signifies corporate employment as opposed to “entrepreneurship”: take a look at these blog posts:

“5 reasons working for The Man isn't all that bad”
“How To Survive Working For ‘The Man’”

This is a Kinder, Gentler Man; but at bottom he’s still The Man.

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